Product First: If You Build It Right, They Will Come

There is no shortage of advice in the startup world.  Entrepreneurs and bloggers have all sorts of wisdom to share for upcoming startups.  Common advice notes the value of networking, fundraising, blogging and conferences.  For example, articles like Establishing Your Reputation as a Startup CEO Before Launch.

I’m surprised by how little emphasis I see on the product itself.  Following all the startup blogs alone can take hours a day, not to mention writing your own blog, responding to various forums, and attending networking events.  You can attend all the events in the world, but they’re meaningless if your product isn’t being perfected.  You’ll be surprised how much further your product gets, and how little you miss, if you go a week without reading any blogs or meeting anyone outside of your team.

At the core of every great startup is a great product.  If you’re in this more for the money, working for yourself, the connections, or the fame you’re in trouble.  I’ve met countless entrepreneurs who focus more on meetings and networking than their own product.  Of course these activities are important, but I believe startups can thrive without them.  It’s easy to lose focus and get distracted from what counts the most.

We all know that success is not as simple as “if you build it, they will come”.  Advice givers seem to say “if you build it and write about it and meet with lots of people, they will come.”  But I prefer “If you build it right, they will come.”

Think Chatroulette, a simple but well-implemented product attracting millions of users with no marketing budget.  17-year-old Andrey Ternovskiy had a vision and built it right, and the investors came to him.  Think Facebook, always praised for its college rollout strategy, but it never would have taken off at the first college (Harvard) if it wasn’t great.

A great product speaks for itself.  It attracts and maintains users with no marketing budget.  It even attracts investors.  If you read these articles, they make landing a meeting with an angel or VC sound more difficult than stealing the mona lisa.  But it turns out investors want to meet with entrepreneurs.   If you build a great product, and can tell them your  vision, they will meet with you – because if they don’t they may be missing out on the next big thing.  If you don’t have a great product and/or vision to show them, of course they won’t want to meet with you.  In fact, if you’re tearing down doors and getting nowhere with users and investors, it may be time to rethink your product or throw in the towel.  While it’s important for entrepreneurs to be dreamers, another piece of advise I don’t see written is how important it is to be realistic and self-critical, but this topic will have to wait for another entry.

When you read an article giving you advice, make sure you know who is writing it.  Are they a journalist, a startup wannabe, or a successful entrepreneur that you admire?  Big difference.  I was surprised to discover that the author of the article I linked above “has a Master’s Degree in Folklore and was working on a PhD in Comparative Literature, but chose to become a technology journalist rather than write her dissertation.”  Soon after joining the startup world, you’ll find there are many career startup advice suppliers who have never had a very successful startup of their own.  Are you still as interested in their advice?

I very much appreciate all these columns, and respect the writers.  These articles inspire countless entrepreneurs (I don’t know if I would have made the leap to the startup world without them), and they help us form our own personal strategies.

My strategy is putting product first.  If the product isn’t something that users and/or investors are interested in, I will revisit the design or start a new project altogether.  On that note, I’m going back to work on LazyMeter.

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